A plug for additional evaluations of performances in professional cycling

A plug for additional evaluations of performances in professional cycling

7/16/2013
In an attempt to put another layer of contextual nuance in play here, I’ll weigh in with a perspective that has developed over the last 20yrs of watching professional cycling and a lifetime of watching professional / Olympic sports.  I am frequently a reader / follower of varied discussion forums (esp. CyclingNews (CN) Clinic forum], a cycling fan, a passionate cyclist and antidoping/clean-fair sport advocate.

Groups like the Clinic /CN Forum, generally the thoughtful posters there, and folks that post things to their blogs/webpages serve an extremely useful purpose.  If one is reasonably diligent, it becomes possible to glean varied perspectives about sport, doping, clean/dirty performances, spin, new techniques, etc.  Much of this information dissemination occurs somewhat non linearly or disjointedly, sometimes in real time, and maybe in an altogether adversarial/nonsanitary fashion.  However, all in all, discussion fora do provide context, and often comedic relief, about ideas regarding competitive cycling or sport.

Additionally, it becomes another affair to put Armstrong into proper context link with his peers & predecessors.  And another matter entirely to assess whether the faster average speeds we’ve seen in the last 60 or so years link can be attributed to PED use, equipment innovations, training, distance reductions and/or some combination(s) thereof.

Armstrong and his layers of lawyers were often very clever, resourceful and
persistent in suppressing results or report translations. Apparently, Dave Brailsford (a principal at Team SKY), & BC seem to have taken this tact- promising transparency, promising but delaying data release, or plain obfuscation, so when we here write SSDD about much of this- it’s because this appears altogether strongly familiar.

So, I am calling you out, Dave, to release data (particularly pre 2011 data) & methods so that we as the public can evaluate your team’s performances since right now it appears ‘highly suspicious’.  In the absence of a response, we can utilize other methods to derive power & performance data.

Additionally, SKY’s been very smart in ‘controlling the message’ regarding their use of or TUE of PEDs currently suspected and training methodologies.  In the case of Armstrong et al, the Reasoned Decision Report & varied confessions served as ample evidence regarding ~15-20 yrs worth of his illegitimate performances, AND, I imagine, a fair amount of information was garnered from forums.  Yes, I suppose we were ‘entertained’ by the sport/spectacle for the last 20yrs.  At least I was at the time, but now viewing varied performances (with now added perspective) from the 1990’s thru the 2000’s, I see them for what they are: namely a PED-enhanced circus that now requires a significant suspension of disbelief & discounting of facts to enjoy on any rational/defensible level.  Just because we don’t like Froome, Contador, Valverde, Martin, etc for whatever reasons- some legitimate and others pure ‘dislike’ is no reason to defacto discount facts or information because they don’t fit into our neat tidy boxes.  Groups like Change Cycling (CCN) and Antoine Vayer’s article, while not particularly enlightening to folks that have followed cycling for awhile, offer a way forward and put different performances thru the years into a type of perspective & allow for some historical context/comparison.  It perhaps puts another element that requires some degree of scrutiny- hopefully something that grassroots groups like CCN hope to do.

Cycling has, if I understand correctly, the UCI & WADA along with the Biopassport to screen athletes for PEDs or adverse blood /urine profiles.  However, to my knowledge there isn’t _any_ type of objective evaluation about performances so that one can put them into some type of context.  Short of the links provided above, there appear to be some well researched pieces of information, articles or forums where the performances become more thoughtfully and rigorously evaluated.

Why is there no current physiological evaluation (besides time) for putting the performances into context?  Brailsford et al seems to feel that the sporting public would be unable to ‘understand’ or might misuse the data.  However, I imagine that an objective group with specialties in human physiology & performance, along with folks having an understanding of what compounds are contained in an athletes TUE, might be able to put much what we’re seeing into some type of context.  I imagine that the Clean Cycling group was likely headed in that direction to a degree.  In the absence of some type of objective oversight, I suppose that debate in the CN Clinic will  have to suffice and periodic perspectives from folks like Vaughters, Ashendon, Kimmage/Walsh, Lemond, etc might enhance our collective understanding.

I, for one, started out as a ‘believer” in Froome/Contador/ Armstrong/Landis/Ullrich/Vino/Hamilton/Riis/etc in cycling because they seemed genuinely elite athletes, and to a certain degree they were supremely talented. However, I imagine the more we read and find out about how these varied professional businesses operate, it becomes clearer that results help drive sponsorship dollars and endorsements in a strange vicious cycle. Unfortunately, these athletes or their teams/federations appear to have turned increasingly to chemical means to maintain their fitness, status, place in the peleton, public accolades, whatever. As one cyclist (Fignon?) or journalist put it – ‘these drugs have made racehorses out of donkeys’; and therein lies the problem.

In the case of Froome, I needed to suspend disbelief over both his current & recent performances in 2013, and his rather remarkable career trajectory thus far that they are indeed legitimate.  Apparently, Paul Kimmage’s tweet put it more succinctly with the “when elephants fly, I’ll have seen everything’ remark.  When was the last time a cyclist (& really team) held such a high level of form over such a long time & against competitors that likely dope? Competitors include Saxo, Movistar, etc- these teams nearly uniformly have cyclists that have been popped for doping, have DSs that competed in the EPO-era (1990s) and/or have staff long engaged in performance enhancement(s).  I don’t recall such a spring season to stage racing-long peak- that, in itself, appears suspicious & requires explanation- probably the 1990’s.  I believe a poster here in the Clinic calculated Froome’s watts/kg for Ax3 & Mt Ventoux.  Apparently, no real dropoff in performance occurred and his power numbers were few percent higher than current competitors & his times were at levels that approach/beat cyclists from an era in which a high degree of the peloton was significantly doped. So whether he’s using old school EPO/bloodbags or new school AICAR, GW1516, Telmsartan, Gas6 doping techniques, it doesn’t matter since it’s all performance enhancing.

We can argue issues of drafting, wind direction, etc all we want, but mostly his/Sky’s relative performances and fatigue on the part of his primary competitors illustrate a fundamental paradigm shift (IMO) between old-school doped vs ‘super-doped’/’gene-doped’/’training-cleanish’ performance.  Froome’s attacks seemed surrealistic & require some additional insights from physiologists/blood passport evaluators/etc.  He appears now able to attack, ride with no significant loss in power output (ie, fatigue curve slope is shallower than competitors), recovers within a short time and then attack again- riding fairly well known (doping) cyclists right off his wheel.  The Rope-a-Dope with Quintana after dropping Contador (on Mt Ventoux), Froome’s ITT performance and his spring performances now require some significant adjustment about athletic understanding and training for endurance sports (if done cleanly), objective evaluation of data, and (relative to a likely semi-mostly-partially doped peloton) a proper explanation of techniques taken to achieve these remarkably consistent results.  This would, for me anyway, allow a recalibration of belief once more in cycling as a sport rather than the ‘wrestling on wheels version’ we’ve now seen for the last 20 yrs.

Thirty years ago (maybe longer), the main dynamic seemed to involve amphetamines, steroids, and bronchial dilators which were good for short term classics-type events. Now it is HGH, rEPO/CERA, blood transfusions, steroid/hormone patches, plasma volume expanders, oxygen uptake extenders, recombinant hemoglobin, etc and which convey long lasting effects upon physiological performance and endurance. I am currently at a loss as to how to understand lengthy TUE lists in terms of performance. Additionally, many of the things these athletes take also help elude doping controls or pass tests; these amendments also may cause as yet unknown health problems. Doping, unfortunately pervasive in many sports and at multiple levels (pro-masters-college-high school-weekend warriors), creates issues since many/some/most athletes cannot afford or wish to take the pharmacy of drugs necessary to not only just compete but to win and get that endorsement or sponsorship or medal or t-shirt/cheap trinket. And that is why fundamentally, the debate on PEDs in sport/sport biz matters- it, for the most part has tended to be an unlevel playing field with respect to money, fair competition and results.  SKY simply appears to be the latest well-moneyed, perhaps agency-protected version of this.

These amendments to enhance performance have, at times, made it seem as though
these were ‘extraordinary’ or ‘superhuman’ or ‘physiologically impossible’. I
believe that is why Lemond ( VO2 max mid 90s) has such a problem with
Armstrong (reported VO2 max 75-82) and likely Contador. They both climbed
certain parts of TdF HC climbs considerably faster than Lemond had, apparently
‘effortlessly and ahead of (for Armstrong) known dopers (eg Ullrich, Mayo,
Hamilton, maybe Virenque). For Lemond and a lot of others, these feats should
be physiologically impossible (based on known facts) without doping.

Froome’s rise appears as though he’s somehow superseded his natural physiological limits in relatively short order.  That is, a few years ago when he was peloton fodder & finishing minutes back in many MTF races, he had VO2max(1) and watts/kg(1).  Over the last few years, he’s raised this (apparently ‘cleanly’) to VO2max(2) and watts/kg(2) through the use of sophisticated training techniques, weight loss, etc.  Additionally, he’s done this while apparently overcoming some kind of severe parasitic disease that requires significant chemotherapy (perhaps ameliorated by enhanced use of corticosteroids) and his dropping off the map bloodpassport-wise for significant parts of the season- only to magically regain form in time for stage racing season.  The fact that British Cycling has apparently (read this in a post) been handing out TUEs rather indiscriminantly and Sky’s been rather cagey in varied responses for data release suggests that there’s a lot of unavailable information which would help in the understanding & context of current performances.

The irresponsibility of varied journalists/oversight agencies to thoroughly investigate or report on these issues, fundamental intellectual laziness of many fans, and the disjointed nature of many testing national/international bodies in how they report & share information has compounded the problem as well.  Additionally, due to the inability of testing groups to consistently / reliably catch violators and a proper understanding of varied clean/doped performances, it appears as though it may be time to enforce some kind(s) of objective arbiters in these kinds of endurance events.  The forum clinic (varied threads) does serve as a unique fashion in the sense that there’s a realtime messy evaluation but perhaps something along the lines of a WADA/Bloodpassport/ data evaluation objective aggregate group appears needed.  To rely on a teams “trust us, we’re clean” or lack of institutional oversight (ie, UCI), the next best option appears online forums where there appears to be legitimate sharing/evaluation/semiobjectivity without the agenda-injecting monetary aspect.
Postscript: the new frontiers in PED use, evaluation of performance

Gas6 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2176185/
http://www.vib.be/en/news/Pages/Progress-toward-an-alternative-for-EPO—Gas6-offers-remedy-where-EPO-fails-today.aspx

Power evaluations Vayer – performances 1990-present>> putting ‘not normal’ performances into context
http://www.joomag.com/magazine/alternativ-editions-not-normal/0269766001370594539
Power evaluation- http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/biking/Analysing-Froomes-Performance.html?page=all

Cytocrhrome C oxidase (COXc) doping http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=%22cycling%22%22cytochrome+C+oxidase%22+%22doping%22&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart&sa=X&ei=d-DdUeCVNtKy4APkt4GIDQ&ved=0CCgQgQMwAA

TID triiodothrionine (T3) use & endurance athletes
http://scholar.google.com/scholar?start=10&q=%22thyroid+hormone%22+%22triiodothyronine%22%22endurance+athletes%22&hl=en&as_sdt=0,6&as_ylo=2009&as_vis=1

Clean performances exceed doped ones:
http://www.sportsscientists.com/2013/07/clean-performances-to-surpass-doped.html

AICAR, GW1516, & Telmsartan – new genetic doping agents
https://www.google.com/search?q=%22aicar%22%22froome%22&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a#client=firefox-a&hs=WqC&rls=org.mozilla:en-US%3Aofficial&sclient=psy-ab&q=%22aicar%22%22use+in+endurance+sports%22&oq=%22aicar%22%22use+in+endurance+sports%22&gs_l=serp.3…12306.18190.0.18829.29.28.0.0.0.15.348.5843.0j18j8j2.28.0….0…1c.1.19.psy-ab.PFT1fLyTWPo&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_qf.&bvm=bv.48705608,d.aWc&fp=a144351cce8306e3&biw=1363&bih=869

Aicar- endurance sports
http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=%22aicar%22%22endurance+sports%22&btnG=&hl=en&num=20&as_sdt=0%2C6

Change Cycling Now http://www.changecyclingnow.org/